Q: My team and I provide support to many groups in our large organization. Here’s the challenge: we think we understand what our clients need, but then when we provide it, it’s not what they wanted. I’m not sure where the breakdown is occurring.
Melinda, 38, corporate communication
A: As an internal consultant, use active listening to clarify needs and expectations, while also putting a clear process in place for documenting assumptions and decisions so everyone is on the same page.
Your first focus should be on further diagnosing the issue. Are you seeing a widespread pattern that cuts across a variety of team members, client departments, and types of projects? If so, you will need to define a systemic fix. If it’s more isolated, it’s still important, but calls for a more individualized approach.
Active listening goes beyond simply paying attention (although that’s a necessary starting point) to fully understanding the spoken and unspoken messages. For example, if someone agrees with your proposed deliverable with their words but their tone or body language indicates reservations, the active listener will follow up.
Listening sounds basic and easy, but there are challenges. Think about all the times you have felt like you haven’t been really heard, even though someone is supposedly listening. Attention spans are shorter and distractions more abundant, so focusing on the person you are speaking with may be more difficult than it seems. But it’s very worth the effort.
You also need a good set of questions to ask from the very beginning of a project. When you have a clear understanding of a project’s goals, audience, business objectives, and risks, you will be much better equipped to meet your client’s needs. It’s worth developing a short questionnaire that you walk through, especially while this becomes second nature to you and your team members. Plus, even seasoned consultants can get rushed and forget things — this will help everyone remain thorough.
This approach also helps forestall a common problem: your client knows they need something but haven’t taken the time to think it through. That is a formula for disappointment.
Also build in check-ins at meaningful points in a project. It’s far easier to make changes, say, in a report template, before all the information is added. Ask for specific feedback rather than permitting a cursory “looks good.” And raise risks. For example, if you are working on a design for the company’s annual report, will it change if you have poor financial results? Think about these possibilities in advance so neither you nor your client are blindsided.
While this is a process-driven approach, it is not one size fits all. The guiding principle is that, at each step of the way, have clear communication about next steps, be sure the goals have not changed, get buy-in on your direction, and keep good records of decision and next steps.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at email@example.com.